6 Steps to Making Ethical Decisions

Ethics is a set of moral principles (right and wrong) and a branch of philosophy that defines what is good for individuals and society.

Ethics is a very difficult domain because the notion of right and wrong are often in our minds.

The anthropologist Ruth Benedict made a distinction between a guilt culture and a shame culture.

A guilt culture is based on one’s conscience and an internal interpretation of what is right and wrong. A concern for truth, justice, and fairness are the hallmarks of a guilt culture.

A shame culture is based on what others believe in or perceive rather than what our conscience tells us. We see this all around us. Our actions are often based on pleasing others rather than being true to ourselves.

Given this background, it is difficult to deal with ethical or moral dilemmas.

Lawrence Kohlberg has provided us with a six-step tool to help resolve such dilemmas. The tool has a set of six questions:

Relative to the action or decision I am about to make:

  1. Who all may be affected?
  2. Does the action or decision benefit me?
  3. Does it align with the social group to which I belong?
  4. Does it conform to the applicable laws and regulations?
  5. Does the action or decision lead to the greatest good to the largest number of people?
  6. Are the motives behind the action/decision based on truth/integrity towards everyone likely to be affected?

What are the various scenarios that might follow?

  1. YES, to questions 2 – 6: Go Ahead.
  2. No, to questions 2 – 6: Do not proceed. Think again.
  3. Mix of yes and no:
  4. Yes, to questions 5 and 6: Highly ethical action – modify to address questions 2 – 4.
  5. No, to questions 5 and 6: Least ethical decision – modify to address shortcomings and to address questions 2 – 4.
  6. Answers to 5 and 6 different: Moderately ethical action – modify to address shortcomings and address questions 2 – 4.

Using the model as a template, try to answer this hypothetical question:

Your family is vacationing alone on a private stretch of beach with no lifeguard. Your daughter and your niece, both 7, are best friends and are eager to get into the water.

You caution them to wait until the water calms some, but they defy you and sneak in anyway. You soon hear screams of distress and find them both caught in a strong current.

You are the only swimmer strong enough to save them, but you can only save one at a time. Your niece is a poor swimmer and likely won’t make it much longer.

Your daughter is a stronger swimmer, but only has a 50% chance of holding on long enough for you to come back for her.

Who do you save first?

If that sounds excruciatingly difficult, try this one: this is not hypothetical, it happened at a world-famous university a few years back.

It is human nature to think that ethical behavior is more likely when we observe a person. But, what if the eyes doing the observing are not real? In an interesting experiment, some fascinating results followed. Apparently, a psychology department of a university in the United Kingdom, less than three hours from London, was experiencing a problem. Like most departments, there was a coffee station where faculty and staff could help themselves to coffee and then leave their money in the tray (approximately $1). However, it was obvious that some people were helping themselves to coffee and not paying.

One of the professors came up with an idea. He initiated an experiment. For ten weeks, he and his assistants alternately taped two poster signs above the coffee station. One week, the poster displayed a picture of flowers. Another week, the poster displayed a picture of staring eyes. They wondered whether the different posters or pictures would evoke different responses regarding whether people honestly paid for their coffee.

After the ten weeks, the researchers noted an interesting pattern. When the eyes poster was at the coffee station, the coffee and tea drinkers contributed 2.76 times more money than when the flower poster was displayed. The researchers surmised that the sensation of being watched, though the eyes were not real, motivated people to be more honest about paying for their coffee or tea. The originator of the idea admitted that the results were more dramatic than what he had expected.

Later, officers in a police department in Birmingham, England, read a paper about this experiment and were impressed. They decided to slap posters of staring eyes all around the city. They named their venture “We’ve Got Our Eyes on Criminals.” The officers hoped that vandalism and other crimes would come down.

  1. Was it ethical for the professor to conduct such an experiment on his colleagues without announcing it?
  2. Are you surprised at the results? Why or why not?
  3. Do you think the police department scheme will work? Why or why not?


Dilshad and Krishna




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